Thursday, October 11, 2012
The English Journey - Steve and Hollie's Trip to England
Day 1: Left Chatham, ON for Detroit Michigan. No problems with the border - fortunately the border guard's mother was over in England for the Olympics - we ran through quickly. Arrived at about 12:30pm for our 3:30pm fight. The flight boarded on time, but sat on the runway for over an hour while crews repaired some electronic systems (exactly what you want before flying - new, untested system installation).
Once airborne both Hollie and I watched several movies on the flight as watching movies is one of the few things you can do when your knees are directly placed in front of your face for up to 8 hours. The TV on the plane is hosted on the seat of the passenger in front of you. The passenger in front of me was a "touch-o-phobe" and my attempts to change channels on the touch-screen TV caused her great agony which she shared with me by making it very clear that poking her seat was unacceptable. She apparently was not a psychic, however, as there was not any indication of agony from the thoughts her "condition" precipitated.
Behind me lived a 14 month old, on his first flight, immersed into a car seat that took several members of the ground crew to install onto the lavish existing economy-class seat. As the little prince likes to "stretch out", his cute, little, royal toes were pressed against my seat back. The prince's mother, the Queen, graciously said that she'd try to accommodate an attempt to increase my cell size through a release of my seat back, by gently moving the prince, assuming I gave her an appropriately long interval to prepare. As the flight was only 7 or 8 hours, there never seemed to be an appropriate duration for preparing the prince.
However, Madame "Touch-A-Phobic" did not feel the need to inform nor allow a preparation interval, as she invaded from the north without warning. My cell size was now below what PETA would consider appropriate for a chipmunk.
True to his word, the pilot made up the late departure time in the air, and we began one of several thousand circles of Heathrow Airport (London) relatively on time. I had never realized, but like a car in a parking garage, planes from high altitudes need to slowly spiral down, level by level, to a landing site.
Immigration was relatively uneventful, the line was very long, but moved regularly, as there were at least 20 booths open. The multitude of nationalities represented was a tribute to British multiculturalism.
We arrived in the main terminal, with luggage (all of our luggage) about an hour after our scheduled landing time. Not sure if that is typical or atypical for international travel, as I am a novice.
My brother-in-law Paul met us, and drove us into London at a speed that can only be considered inappropriate for a land vehicle, though seemed to be business as usual for our pilot. The lack of wings proved not to be a problem as we made amazing time through traffic into London.
I learned lots of interesting tidbits about driving in England:
1) they drive on the left (it is very good to remember this, as it seems to affect everything).
2) the have lane markers, but these are pretty much for show only - the actual London drivers tend to ignore them if they are in the way.
3) the have zebra crossings ("zed-bra" not "zee-bra"), which is really a killing pen for pedestrians. The pedestrians have the "right of way" which means they get to die knowing they were "right" and "in the way" - perhaps "Martyr crossing" would be a more appropriate term.
4) at certain points the lane markers along the curbs go all zig-zaggy, which, I think, means "do whatever the hell you want for the next few feet", as that seems to be what occurs. However, I checked with Paul and he says that it means it is a "no stopping zone", which I interpreted to mean that you can legally flee from police when you hit something.
5) in North America, the traffic lights signal order is "green", "yellow" and then "red", warning drivers that their green, free passage time, is ending, which allows them to clear the intersection for other travellers. In England, the traffic signal order is "Red", "Yellow" and "Green", which, roughly translated is: "On your Mark", "Get Set", "Go".
Paul showed us the key sights at a twisting 100 miles per hour and drove us to our east-end hotel (the Radisson). We paid close attention, though it might not have appeared so, given most, if not all, of our comments were along the lines of "my, what neato buses you have". Apparently this is a Mitchell family trait, as my sister Lori has a world-class collection of double-decker bus pictures from various trips to England....buses near the Tower of London......buses near Buckingham Palace......buses on Oxford.......buses near Trafalgar Square. Perhaps on subsequent trips she'll have pictures of the Tower of London......Buckingham Palace.....Oxford.....Trafalgar Square ...to accompany her bus pics.
We checked in, which was very nice, as it was still only 10am or so in the morning, and check-in time is not guaranteed until 2pm or so. We dropped off our bags, and did the normal things required after sitting on a plane, and a "land-plane" for several hours. We convinced Paul to provide us with more tour guide services back into the city.
We then walked about 1km to the Excel Centre, where we boarded the Docklands Light Rail line for a trip into London. We got off the line at Tower station (near the Tower of London) and walked over the Tower Bridge, and along the Thames to Millennium Bridge (a pedestrian bridge) re-crossing the river. In between, we had our first pub experience, though the drinks were coffees to stay alert. The weather was sunny and warm so it was an excellent time for an introduction to London (excellent, though atypical).
Paul showed us many of the key London landmarks: The Tower of London, Tower Bridge, the Globe theatre, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Parliament with, of course, Big Ben. We visited St. Paul's Cathedral, which is truly massive. We climbed a circular stairway up to a Whispering Hall, a ledge about 40 feet high, allowing a view of the cathedral floor below. Paul and I ascended further up the dome, first to an outdoor platform a million feet over ground level, where we were able to get outside and take a look around on a reasonably sized viewing deck. Being idiots, we ascended further to a platform only slightly lower than the Babel Tower which caused so much havoc in the past. The stairway to ascend to this next-to-Babel level required a conscious effort to shed the evidence of years of poor nutrition and less-than-appropriate levels of activity. Even still, forceps were required to pry my sorry butt from the last landing onto the upper deck. All of the decorative gargoyles at this level seemed to be saying "I'm afraid of heights" with the appropriate facial expressions of someone with agoraphobia who is permanently affixed to the outside of a Cathedral two million feet over the ground level, being held fast to the outside of the dome by your buttocks. The spacious walkway of the lower level was replaced with a curb 3" wide to accommodate two-way travel of the fellow idiots who ascended to this height. Remarkably, the lack of oxygen at this height, combined with the fact that you were no longer following somebody's ass up a flight of stairs for an hour, made this curb a welcome harbour.
As interesting as climbing up St. Paul's cathedral was, going down was worse - gravity is not your friend when your feet are approximately one foot long, and the stairs are approximately a nanometer. All that Newton predicted happens as your body tries desperately to surf down the circular stairs over the obstacles, which in other circumstances, would be considered people. Having mentioned Newton, I should point out that you don't need to ask if he is interred at St. Paul's - I've done so, and as everyone else apparently knows, he hangs out at nearby Westminster Abbey. Admiral Nelson, however, does make St. Paul's a permanent home, as does Lawrence of Arabia and the Duke of Wellington.
From St. Pauls we walked down on shaky limbs to Trafalgar square, which has a very high tribute to Nelson, a gigantic column. The square was very populated, with some street performers, some protesters and lots of general hangers on. We began a search for dinner, trying several establishments which had private functions so weren't yet open to serve hungry, hungry Canadians. We ended up at a very nice pub which Paul was familiar with, the location of which I can safely narrow down to England.
Thank goodness for Paul - being novices, we were awaiting the serving staff to take our food and beer orders. However, in pubs, this is one of the top few ways to die (#1, of course, is football hooligan beating, normal starvation is somewhere in the top 5). Hollie and I ordered fish and chips, which in England they call "Fish and Chips". I magnified my ignorance by trying to order a beer. Apparently in England they make distinctions between "Draught" beer and "Bitters" - in Canada, last I checked, all beer in taps was "Draft", otherwise you chose from the other types "Bottle" and "Can". It makes the English laugh uproarishly when you ask for "the least bitter draught", which apparently crosses some serious psychological barriers.
Oh, and don't ask "Why is the beer warm?", as they'll coolly tell you it is "cellar temperature". I've never had the guts to ask the obvious follow-up question "then why is your cellar so warm?".
After dinner we saw the Parliament buildings, and Buckingham Palace, which has gold decorations. Real gold is very bright and golden, and it really stands out and looks amazing. By seeing how phenomenal golden decorations look, I suspect I've only seen crappy decorations in the past.
We went then though Green park, past Canada Gate (also with golden decorations) toward the subway (no....the "tube", also called the "underground"). Later, without Paul, Hollie and I frantically searched for the "Subway" in the rain, and ended up with a meatball on whole wheat, but that is another day. With Paul, we had a reasonably quiet tube/LRT trip, though Hollie suddenly realized that the people in the "tube" here looked the same as people in the "subway" in Toronto, and observation that can be explained by the lengthy interval between that point in time and the last sleep experienced.
Back at the hotel, Paul bid us adieu (though likely not in those exact words, as the English really don't particularly like the French). He predicted we would likely be asleep in about 40 minutes, as we'd been awake for approximately 34 straight hours, if you don't count the time Hollie was snoring on the plane, which doesn't seem to "count" as sleep. He was really wrong. We managed to fall asleep on the reception desk in the Radisson, awaking several hours later in really cute matching drool puddles. We quickly jumped up and said, in unison, "That's OK, it's a Canadian Tradition, eh?".